Alvarez sworn in as Cook Co. state's attorney

December 1, 2008 3:55:13 PM PST
She made history last month becoming Cook County's first female Hispanic state's attorney. And on Monday, Democrat Anita Alvarez took the oath of office.

It was standing room only at Chicago's Cultural Center Monday afternoon as hundreds of people crowded a second floor ballroom to witness the beginning of another chapter in the city's rich history.

An all-Latina color guard from Benito Juarez High School added even more excitement to the much-anticipated swearing in ceremony for Anita Alvarez, Cook County's first female and Hispanic state's attorney.

"Whether she is female or Latina, she would have gotten it anyway because of her qualifications," said attorney Aurora Austriaco.

During her prepared remarks, Alvarez, who worked in the office as an assistant for 22 years, did not mention her gender or ethnic background. The wife and mother of four children stressed her qualifications. It was only after the ceremony, prodded by reporters, that Alvarez talked about the history she'd just made.

"It's a great feeling. It really is a great feeling to break that ceiling and to be able to prove that, yes, a person like me can do this job as a prosecutor," Alvarez said.

Defense lawyer Andre Grant says he's looking forward to changes that he expects that Alvarez will bring to the office.

"I expect to see more Latino states attorneys; I expect to see more black state's attorneys. That number is very low," Grant said.

Alvarez has vowed to reopen satellite state's attorney's offices and says she wants to focus even more on assistance to crime victims. But one of the guests at Monday's swearing in, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, says budget constraints could put a damper on the prosecutor's plans in the near term.

"This year, we know we won't be expanding anything. We'll have to see what next year brings us," Stroger said.

But Alvarez, already pressed to keep a campaign promise, said she'd look elsewhere for money, if necessary.

"I'm looking for someone in the private sector that might help me fund these offices, as opposed to looking to the county board for any kind of additional funding," she said.

Alvarez says she'll begin making appointments to lead the various divisions in the state's attorney's office during the next few weeks.

In the audience were some of the crime victims Alvarez has helped during the past 22 years. In the front row in a wheelchair, was a 20-year-old woman known 11 years ago as 9-year-old "Girl X" who was attacked at Cabrini Green. Alvarez has maintained that relationship for a decade.

With her new position comes a big challenge.

The biggest problem facing Alvarez will be money. Despite a sales tax increase last year, pressures on the county budget will make it difficult to launch new satellite prosecutors offices and expanded victim's assistant programs.

And there are fears the funding issues could affect a decades-old problem facing the county's criminal justice system: the huge backlog of cases.

At 26th and California, the waiting continues at the Cook County Jail. At last count, of just over 9,200 inmates were there, and more than 1,200 still had not had their trials begin.

Alvarez already says her office is not solely to blame.

"It's more than just the state's attorney's office. You need the cooperation of the defense bar, the public defender," she said.

In the most recent count, of the 1,274 untried inmates who've been in jail over a year, 423 have been locked up more than two years, 175 more than three and 82 inmates for more than four years. And 41 Cook County Jail inmates have waited more than five years for their trials to begin.

On Monday morning, the circuit court's chief swore in 26 newly elected judges. While calling the case backlog a persistent problem for the courts, he advised caution to those demanding a faster system.

"We want justice, not just speed, but justice. We want people to be able to say, if they have a trial in Cook County, that it was a fair trial, that integrity prevailed. That is more important than anything else. Justice must prevail," said Timothy Evans, chief judge of Circuit Court.

On December 15, the courts will launch a new program that it hopes will make it possible for more defendants to make bond. The hope is to lower the number of inmates in the jail.

Under the program, people could at least wait for trials at home instead of behind bars.


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